To be eligible and capable to pursue postsecondary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses and careers, students must receive a strong foundational education in grades K-12. A number of promising practices exist to increase both the numbers of students interested in STEM and the likelihood of their success in higher education and beyond. Workshop participants indicated that K-12 schools, science centers, businesses, collaborative groups, and parents all can play important roles in encouraging students to contemplate STEM educational and career pathways. According to numerous participants, the following practices can increase students’ interest in STEM, increase their proficiency in STEM subjects, and expand their understanding of the career opportunities available to them regionally. Of particular interest are practices and programs that reach students from populations traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields to ignite their interest and foster persistence in STEM studies and careers. A recent report highlights the critical role that afterschool programming can play in supporting many of the activities and objectives described below.1
Recognition has spread that hands-on, project-based learning is especially effective in engaging K-12 students in STEM subjects. Many companies sponsor extracurricular STEM competitions and programs because they are shown to spark excitement that motivates young people to learn—and enjoy—math and science. Interest and confidence in STEM subjects grows as students explore STEM concepts in the context of solving real challenges. When a 10th grader realizes that she must understand certain mathematical or scientific principles in order to build a robot, she no longer tends to ask how these subjects are relevant to her life or why she needs to study them.
The demonstrated effectiveness of afterschool project-based activities in inspiring student interest and achievement is leading more schools to adopt hands-on learning approaches in the classroom. For example, the Macon County Alabama School District has worked with the Aerospace Science Engineering Department at Tuskegee University, along with faculty from its mathematics and psychology departments, to develop math and science modules for K-12 students using a flight-simulation environment.
Meeting participants discussed how the quality of STEM education can be improved by ensuring K-12 instructors have a firm grounding in STEM disciplines as well as a solid understanding of effective teaching practices for keeping students interested and increasing their confidence. California State University Dominguez Hills brings K-12 teachers, particularly from lower-income, underutilized neighborhoods, to campus and trains them in the pedagogy of problem-based learning—real-world problem solving—in their classrooms. In North Dakota, the De-
1Afterschool Alliance (2015). Full STEM Ahead: Afterschool Programs Step Up as Key Partners in STEM Education. Washington, DC.
partment of Public Instruction, the North Dakota Science Teachers, and the North Dakota Council of Teachers of Mathematics held a joint conference in 2014 called Full STEAM Ahead (and in 2015 were joined by the North Dakota STEM Network),2 bringing together K-12 teachers to explore effective pedagogies for STEM disciplines and the arts. A vice president of the aerospace company Northrop Grumman noted the value of Project Lead the Way, a national nonprofit providing project-based engineering curricula for K-12 students as well as teacher training.3
Another critical factor to attract K-12 students into STEM fields is concerted effort to introduce and familiarize them with industries and professions about which many of them have never heard. Young people cannot envision careers—and teachers and parents cannot encourage students to pursue careers—of which they have never heard. Workshop participants spoke to the importance of students, parents, and teachers being exposed widely to the particular STEM-related career opportunities in their region.
For many companies, their sponsorship of and involvement with extracurricular STEM programs provides the venue and vehicle for their executives and employees to interact with students, teachers, and parents. As they volunteer to support student teams, these professionals have the opportunity to serve as role models and mentors to young people who may never have heard about their company or line of work. By sharing information about the corporation and their career path and experiences, the STEM professionals can demystify the educational pathways and excite students, parents, and teachers about career opportunities.
Other special programs and events are designed to accomplish similar objectives. At the Los Angeles regional meeting, the director for Robotics and LEGO for STAR Education described STEAM Nation,4 a day-long event in Los Angeles County designed to spark students’ interest in STEM and the arts and help them see themselves as future innovators; it reaches 2,500 students from underserved, underutilized groups in the region. In an initiative serving teachers desiring to familiarize themselves with industry’s needs, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation, and a faculty member at North Dakota State University formulated a legislative request to expand a pilot program offering teachers a 4-week externship with a local company, focused on STEM. A representative of the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation described Education That Works, an initiative to educate the community—parents, educators, and business people—about 21st century skills, the value of STEM education, and career opportunities in the region. The economic development organization formed a partnership with local schools and the United Way, and created a video describing, for a variety of industries, what job types are available, what they pay, and what employers look for in new hires.
Generally speaking, more opportunities need to be created for K-12 students to spend time with STEM professionals including, importantly, women and minorities. Participants emphasized that students particularly need to be introduced to STEM professionals who look like themselves. Potential groups of people to bring into the classroom (or with whom students can be connected digitally) include college and university students, early-career STEM professionals, and retired STEM professionals.
Currently, connections between K-12 teachers and STEM professionals are often made on an ad hoc basis; many people in both sectors are unsure how to locate the right people in the other. Mechanisms are needed to make it easier for teachers to locate STEM professionals and for interested STEM professionals to identify teachers who would welcome a connection with industry. National initiatives like US20205 and FabFems6 are seeking to make those connections easier to achieve, and a number of states have begun more geographically targeted programs.
2STEAM is a common acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics.
Other promising mechanisms highlighted by workshop participants included teachers’ contacting midlevel STEM professionals through professional societies who may be able to facilitate a visit to the company or be willing to visit the classroom; teachers reaching out to companies via LinkedIn (particularly effective for start-up and technology companies); and using Google Chat or other online platforms to allow groups of students to talk with a STEM professional. Examples offered by workshop participants of organizations or platforms that can play a facilitating role include local school-business partnerships (Montgomery), science centers (e.g., Gateway to Science in Bismarck, North Dakota), and online platforms or databases (such as the North Dakota STEM Exchange).
Finally, participants in the regional workshops expressed the need to strengthen students’ transition from high school to college or university. Participants in Cleveland and Montgomery reported that too many bright students interested in STEM careers opt not to attend college or to take advantage of other academic opportunities because they lack a sense of belonging—in STEM or in higher education overall. When students lack support from their families and communities because higher education is not expected or encouraged, K-12 instructors are in a good position to provide the necessary support. Meeting participants in Phoenix, Cleveland, and Montgomery spoke enthusiastically about dual-enrollment programs, in which students simultaneously complete their high school education and take college-level courses for credit. Students begin to experience early success at the college level and increase their familiarity with, and sense of belonging in, college or university campuses and the campus culture.
In Phoenix, a faculty member in mathematics at Arizona State University described a residential, tuition-free math and science honors program serving 80 low-income high school students, 70 percent of whom are Native American, hailing from the worst-performing schools in Arizona. These students take college-level courses each summer during the last 3 years of their high school education, and the vast majority go on to college—approximately half attend Arizona State University and half go out of state. Participants in Cleveland also described successful dual-enrollment programs. Lorain County Community College runs an early-college high school program annually involving 100 first-generation students, who receive their associate’s degree concurrently with their high school diploma. The college is now taking the early-college model into the high schools through a program called My University. Also in Cleveland is MC2 High School, a STEM-focused high school, where students spend academic years on-site at the Great Lakes Science Center (9th grade), General Electric (10th grade), and Cleveland State University (11th and 12th grades).
Third-party intermediaries can also play a role in facilitating connections between employers and the K-12 sector. The LA Regional STEM Hub has been instrumental in linking Los Angeles businesses and civic institutions to local students, classrooms, and schools to develop capacity for system-wide transformation of STEM education and the 21st century workforce. The STEM Hub convenes Los Angeles stakeholders dedicated to making progress toward a set of regional goals through collaborative action groups; helps develop STEM teachers, administrators, and afterschool providers professionally through a Peer Learning Network; and provides a communications platform for shared resources around the Common Core Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. Every year, the STEM Hub hosts a State of STEM event, where more than 200 participants from business and industry, elementary and secondary schools, institutes of higher education, government agencies, the philanthropic community, nonprofits, and STEM program providers convene to discuss how the community can work together to meet the needs of the 21st century STEM workforce in Los Angeles.